Thursday, August 30, 2012

Following the Trends: Dangerous, or Profitable?

The Harry Potter phenomenon birthed an explosion of witch-and-wizardry readers, and opened the floodgates for the Young Adult market.

Soon, a little book called Twilight appeared on the shelves. Not long afterwards, Vampires (and, to a certain degree, Werewolves) became the genre-de-jour. In a post-Twilight world, urban fantasy is no longer a paperback genre for the bargain bins.

The Hunger Games arrived and suddenly everyone on earth wanted to explore the gruesome possibilities of our future.

Now there's a swooning tidal wave of women rushing to their kindles (and bookstores!) to buy the Fifty Shades of Grey series. And what headline did I see today? "Why Erotic Fiction is Selling by the Millions".

Looking back, each of the major book phenomenons has been quickly followed by a host of stories - each unique and valuable on it's own, but finding an audience predominently because readers are looking to repeat their experience with a well-known bestseller.

So, what is an author to do?

If you read a lot of agent and editor blogs (like I do), you'll know they warn against following the trends. But it occurred to me today that their advice is good because traditional publishing generally takes at least a year from contract to shelf - usually more like 18-24 months. If an author were to write to the trends, the market would be moving onto the next one before that book got published.

That isn't true for a self-published author. While there are time constraints even in self-publishing, the reality is that an author working independent of the publishing machine can usually get a book drafted, edited, covered and blurbed in a few months. There's definitely an opportunity there to ride a wave of popularity (assuming you're able to draft a commercially viable book inside three months).

As a reader, I'd love to see more books available on my Kindle in the genres I enjoy. And if you can fill that gap in my reading schedule... why not?

Yes, of course you have to find the muse. It has to be a story that captures your heart. But what if it does? What if you read the current phenomenon and find it inspiring? What if you come up with your own twist on the current trend?


I say, go for it.

What have you got to lose?

Your Turn: How do you feel about writing for a trend? Would you ever approach a project that way?

Monday, August 27, 2012

What Are You Doing to Stand Out?

My favorite author-blogger (Author, James Scott Bell), said this in a recent post:

"So here is what you ought to consider as you write: what are you doing that is "more" than what you've read before?"

Now, let's give that some serious thought (and trust me, there's a practical reason for this):

1. What are you doing that's unique?
2. What are you doing that a reader hasn't seen in another book?
3. What are you doing that no one will see coming?

Now, once you've answered at least one of those (if not all three), make sure it's in your pitch, your query, your blurb, etc, etc, etc.

These are the things that will make readers gush about your story. These are the aspects of your character, plot or premise readers will talk about with their friends. These are the things that will sell your book.

If you can't identify them, how is the reader supposed to?'

Your Turn: Name a book that took you by surprise. What was it, and how did it change your expectations of future reads?

Friday, August 24, 2012

Revising to Raise the Stakes

Today I'm guesting over at author, Janice Hardy's blog The Other Side of the Story.

If you want a kicker link to a post that helped me revise my book, or just generally excellent advice from a traditionally published author (Janice rocks!) go here.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Rejection PART I: Unpacking Criticism

Since I'm back on the query trail, I thought it was a good time to revist a topic we covered last year...

Published authors, agents and editors talk A LOT about how there's a need to develop a thick skin if you're going to be successful in publishing. But what does that really mean?

Primarily, in my experience at least, it means two things: Developing the humility to unpack criticism and the ability to separate rejection from failure.

I'll talk about rejection in the next post, but for now, I want to address how to go about...


Unpacking Criticism

When someone reads your work and offers uncomplimentary feedback there are three ways to react:
1. Anger or defensiveness;

2. Retreating out of fear of further hurt;
3. With thoughtful consideration.

The third option is the only one that will improve your chances of success in publication.

Now, don't get me wrong. I've felt the anger of a criticism: "What do you mean that scene was “a little flat”?! Are you kidding me?! I spent DAYS on those pages! And now I need more exclamation points to fully express the emphatic nature of these statements!!!"

I've had moments where I'd like to crawl under a rock and pretend I never wrote a word: I've written fourteen page emails explaining to my critique partners exactly why that scene / character / plot-point had to be that way...

But in the end, those reactions don't make me a better writer.

For me, unpacking criticism is a four part process:

Part One:

Rule #1 of Unpacking Criticism - Thou shalt not respond - at all.

Rule #1-b - If response is absolutely required, it shalt only acknowledge receipt, gratitude for time taken by critiquer and statement of intention to consider all points. (i.e. "Thanks for sending that through! I really appreciate your time. I'll get back to you when I've had a chance to digest it all.)


After I read feedback or critique, I let myself react emotionally (where no one else can see). I feel the feelings, have the justification conversation with myself, throw a pity-party or shed a tear - whatever is required to vent the emotional response I've had. Then I wait for myself to calm down (NB: Sometimes this takes minutes, sometimes hours, sometimes days).



Part Two:
Rule #2 of Unpacking Criticism - Honesty is the best policy. Do yourself a favor and admit you don't know everything - even if it's only to yourself.
Once the intial shock / emotional crisis has passed, I review who offered the critique or feedback. Are they further along in the journey than I am? Do they have a vested interest in seeing me succeed? How familiar are they with my genre? Are they published? Are they an agent / editor? What is their experience or knowledge of the craft?

In the vast majority of cases, I am reminded that this person is either a fellow-writer with a genuine desire to help, or a professional with a much sharper, more experienced eye than my own. In other words: I renew my respect for the source.

Only very rarely do I finish this part of the process with a caution to myself that this person might not know an adverb from a gerbil.***

I also take some time to remind myself fresh eyes can catch things a reader would see that I'm blind to and remember how much better I've felt about my story in the past after taking on board some of the suggestions for change from previous critiques.


Part Three:

Rule #3 of Unpacking Criticism -  Any work I do now that makes my manuscript better takes me one step closer to being published.

I sit down with the critique and re-read it, highlighting any points that immediately jump out as 'right'. I make notes on how and where I'll action those points, then sift through the rest.

All other pieces of critique will fall into one of two categories:

The reader doesn't understand! Whenever I feel this way, I'm reminded it's my writing that failed - because no one can read any book except the one I wrote. So either I need to give more information, change my approach, or clarify something to ensure everyone 'gets it'.

I don't want to do that! This is where things get gritty. In the almost-two years of being critiqued by published and agented authors, as well as my agent, I'm finally beginning to see that the majority of the time I'm resistent to acting on feedback, when I boil it down it's because it seems like too much work.

And in almost every single case where that is my driver, the feedback is right.

I can tell myself the story doesn't need that, the character isn't like that, yadda yadda yadda... but the truth is, if other writers / my agent can see it, then an editor will too. What do I gain from pushing my story out there with flaws I know exist? Nothing. Wouldn't it be better to take the time and effort involved to fix the issues before someone who has a shot at making my career reads it?

Step Four:

Rule #4 of Unpacking Criticism – It will be worth it in the end.
Start writing. Do the easy stuff first. When I see how much better the manuscript becomes after that's done, I usually find a second wind for the harder changes. And if I don’t… well, a little hard work never hurt anyone (and is probably good preparation for the revision under deadline I’ll do with an editor)

So that's my process. I don't know how you're doing with receiving critique, but if it's a struggle, I hope this helps.

Your Turn: Where are you at with getting feedback on your writing? Do you have a writer's group? Critique partners? How do you cope with criticism of your 'baby'?


***Exceptions to the rule:

1. When five people have critiqued the manuscript, and only one has noted the point (though it's probably still worth considering since that implies 20% of my readers might have the same reaction.

2. When the comment comes from someone who knows zero about writing and doesn't usually read my genre (this is more of a beta-screening issue - now I'm pickier than I used to be).

Friday, August 17, 2012

What I Learned from WriteOnCon

Well, I spent three days glued to my computer last week because of a little online conference for childrens fiction called WriteOnCon.

The first thing I learned at WriteOnCon is...

NEVER MISS WRITEONCON.

*Ahem* *Resumes dignified tone and posture*

I learned that through absorbing a bunch of practical writing / query / submission stuff which I'm now going to share in a variety of massive fonts and bullet-pointed lists.

You're welcome.


PRACTICAL WRITERLY THINGS

Two Heads are Better than One-And 700 Heads are Better than Two.

WriteOnCon opened their query and writing sample forums a few days before the conference began. By the day the conference kicked off (a sort of wind-up to the main events) I had 50 comments on my query and more than half of those offered critique or encouragement. My query was WAY better at the end of the conference than it was when I started.

Don't believe me? Here's the original version. And here's what I ended up with (based on some very generous feedback from an agent)

When it Comes to "Selling" Your Stuff You Need the Two D's: Detail and Difference.

Whether it's a 140 character Twitter-pitch, or a five page sample, highlighting the important details is crucial. What consistutes important? I'm glad you asked:

In a Pitch (or Logline):

Protagonist's unique ability, character strength/flaw, or situation, and the seemingly impossible circumstance they find themselves in.


In a Query:

- Who the protagonist is (including age, when it's PB / MG / YA lit).
- What is different about them to all the other protagonists the reader might have seen before.
- What conflict they face.
- What's at stake if they lose / are defeated / die / live / don't fall for the guy, etc.


In your first 100 Words:

- Something that catches the reader's attention and creates tension (which, to be fair, can be anything from a unique writing voice, to a deadly alien-invasion).

- As many details about the protagonist (or POV character) and their setting as is feasible within the confines of what's moving the scene...

- ...But NOT more than one (or occasionally two) details on any given thing. (I.e. Describing a room as dank = WIN. Describing the walls dripping with green, slimy, decaying goo that slides and glides and drips, oozing a nauseating mix of sweet decay and rotting timber, with a touch of turned yoghurt = FAIL. We're aiming for efficiency people! Ee-Fish-En-See).


In Your First Five Pages:

All of the above and a super-dooper, jaw dropping hook.

Oh, and excellent writing. (Read: Ee-Fish-Ent!)


QUERY / SUBMISSION-Y THINGS

Rule Number One of (Online) Conference Attending - Be Professional, Even When You Think No One is Looking

Refraining from stalking the pros, and maintaining a professional, untouchable facade at all times = EXCELLENT.

Sitting at a computer, refreshing an agent's personal profile page (which lists their current 'location' on the online boards) and scooting out of there the second it says "viewing personal profile" = PERMISSIBLE. (Not that I did this, of course. *Cough*)

Following said agent to whatever board they're reading and adding comments on the material = NOT IDEAL.

Leaving visitor messages (visible to anyone) on the agent's profile page with perky little greetings and invitations to view your stuff = WINCE-WORTHY

Following said agent to whatever board they're reading and putting your pitch / query / sample in front of them = BAD. BADBADBAD.

 (I imagine you could replace "Following said agent to whatever board they're reading" with "Following said agent around the conference venue" for conferences you attend in person. Just sayin'.)


Rule Number Two: Never Underestimate the Opportunity Presented

The only reason I attended WriteOnCon was because the organizers sent me an email. When I registered and got started, I expected to get critiques from a handful of writers and maybe learn some useful stuff. I mean, seriously, how can I expect to get noticed in a crowd that size?

I entered two time-sensitive "competitions" in which the authors / editors would choose to critique some of the samples posted. It turns out, mine got critiqued both times (one of those very profitably.... see below).


Rule Number Three: You Never Know When That Little, Tiny Gap in the Door is Going to Open Wide

To be successful at a conference it takes work. And sometimes the odds against getting anything from that work makes it easy to try to phone it in.

During WriteOnCon I had to list my material days before the conference and spend a lot of time critiquing other writers so they'd feel good about critiquing mine. And, just in case an agent did look at my work, I had to keep revising when I got good advice.

I had to get up at 2:00am to make sure one of my samples got listed as soon as the forum opened because I knew the maximum number of entries (50) would fill up quickly.

I had to write a new pitch because my former one was too long. I am not a good pitch writer. That takes real work for me. But I did it "just in case".

(I'm not telling you this to say "Look at me, I'm awesome. You should be like me." I'm telling you this because I did these things with no real expectation of earning anything by it. And yet... look what came.)


True Story

I left WriteOnCon with SIX full manuscript requests (three agents, three editors) and a direct referral of my material by an author to their editor.

One of those manuscript requests came when an intern for a very reputable agent came across my materials on the forum boards. (She's a writer too). She contacted me and asked me to query her agent because she thought the agent would be interested. Turns out, the agent was.

One was based solely on a pitch that consisted of exactly eighteen (18!) words.

One came from an attending agent picking through the boards a couple days before the conference opened.

Three came from agents and editors searching the boards during the conference. Despite the hundreds of submissions, they somehow came across mine. Go figure.


Now, let's be honest: This doesn't mean I'm going to get an agent or an editor. It'll be a while before I know if any of these submissions is going to go any further. But there's no doubt in my mind, the many hours I spent on the computer doing the above things was worthwhile. I've got my manuscript in front of a lot of really reputable eyes.

So, I say again, the first thing I learned at WriteOnCon was DON'T MISS WRITEONCON.

Your Turn: Have I convinced you yet?

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Are You at WriteOnCon?

...if you haven't and you're a YA / MG / PB writer... you're MISSING OUT!

Get over there now. Register for the forums. Get your WIP critiqued by lots of solid writers, or get your query and pages potentially reviewed by NINJA Agents.

Oh, and there's also LOTS of live events, vlogs from professionals and opportunities to pitch your book directly to agents and editors.

It's real and it works and did I mention IT'S FREE???

If you haven't already noticed, you should get over there NOW:

Go to http://writeoncon.com/ for info, then click the "Forum" link at the top of the page to register. Go the Writing Boards, find your age-group and get your work out there!

PS - If you're there, friend me (I'm Aimee L. Salter - go figure). That way I can find your threads!

Monday, August 13, 2012

Three Steps for Ensuring an Effective Character Arc

Three simple steps for ensuring a reader understands your characters and is compelled to keep reading them:

1. The first time each character appears on the page they must be acting in their normal way.

EXAMPLE: If the mysterious and brooding hero is about to meet the girl of his dreams and throw away his little black book, the first time the reader meets him he has to be chatting up the cheerleader and observing how boring it's all become.


2. The character must be pushed out of their norm by direct influence of the story question (not a side-character, or subplot, or implausibly convenient author vehicle).

EXAMPLES:

Romance: When brooding hero meets girl-of-his-dreams, he must find a new philosophy on life and love if he wants to win her over. Story question: Will they or won't they?

Fantasy: A reluctant heroine realizes the only way to save her family is to use the magical ability she hates and marry the King. Story question: Can she accept herself and find love?

Dystopian: When her parents are killed by their owners, plucky slave heroine is determined to escape and return to her brother - her only free relative. Story question: Will she make it out alive?


3. By the story's resolution, the character must be changed in a tangible way, but retain what originally made them interesting.

I find this one a little harder to explain, since it kind of falls into the "know it when I see it" camp. But consider the epic movie Schindler's List, in which the hero originally begins doing good to suit his own purposes, but is slowly drawn into the plight of the Jewish people around him. By the third act, while retaining the gruffness and prosperity that defined him and put him in this position, he's begun "saving" Jews at risk to himself - a completely about-turn from the original motive.

Your Turn: What's the hardest part about writing character development? Are there other elements you'd like us to cover on the blog to help?

Friday, August 3, 2012

Handling Rejection

I'm heading back into the query fray, which means I'm girding my loins for rejection and returning to a lot of good advice I've absorbed in the past to make me stronger for the journey.

This post from Janet Reid has the whole thing boiled down to one simple point:

http://jetreidliterary.blogspot.com/2011/01/value-of-rejection-process.html

If you're querying now, or planning on querying soon, read it. And think about it until you are sure it's true. Then keep reading it and remembering it when those rejections start rolling in.

As for me, whether I'm successful or not, I promise a full analysis of the process, the stats, and what I learned from them later this year.

Wish me luck!